Public sector unions have reached their high water mark. Let the cleanup begin as the red ink recedes.
Despite a last-minute smear campaign accusing Scott Walker of fathering an illegitimate love child, the governor’s recall election victory sends a clear message that should resonate around the nation: The fiscal cancer devouring state budgets has a cure, and he has found it. The costly defeat for the entrenched union interests that tried to oust Walker in retribution for challenging their power was marked by President Obama’s refusal to lend his weight to the campaign for fear of being stained by defeat. We’ll see how well this strategy of opportunistic detachment serves in the fall as Obama reaches out to unions for support.
This fight is not without precedent. Progressive patron saint Franklin Delano Roosevelt—who more than any other president set our country on a course away from the founding principles of limited government—knew that public sector unions would be the death of the social welfare state he worked so hard to create. Hence, he consistently opposed allowing government employees to unionize. Today, Greece sets the example of what happens when public sector unions gain the upper hand.
In 1959 Wisconsin became the first state to allow collective bargaining by government employees. The projected cost of supporting Baby Boomer union retirees now threatens to bankrupt the state, as it does many others. Scott Walker ran for office promising change. The fiscal medicine he is administering may be bitter, but it looks like it is starting to work. The state budget has been balanced. The unemployment rate has been dropping and is now below the national average. Property taxes are down. Fraudulent sick leave policies—which allowed employees to call in sick and then work the next shift for overtime pay—have been ended. The government has stopped forcibly collecting union dues from workers’ paychecks.
Best of all, the myth that union bosses represent their members’ interests has been exposed as a lie. Now that union dues are voluntary, tens of thousands of union members have stopped paying them. Membership in the Wisconsin chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union (AFSCME) has dropped by half. Membership in the state’s American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is down by over a third. Given unions’ influential role in most elections, the national implications of this trend are staggering.
Walker’s message is clear: The key to bringing balance back to public sector labor relations and balance state budgets is to break the iron triangle of closed-shop mandatory unionization, compulsory dues collection, and oversized campaign donations to politicians that promise to do the unions’ bidding. If other governors take his cue and take up the cause, that giant sucking sound you hear will be the air coming out of union bosses’ bloated political action budgets.
The work in Wisconsin is not complete. The controversial law exempted police and firefighters, a political concession to get the legislation passed. Federal courts have zeroed in on this anomaly, striking down certain sections of the law because they do not treat workers equally. This needs to be repaired— by rescinding the exemption for public safety workers. With the recall election behind him, Walker may be sufficiently emboldened to do just that.
The power of private sector unions was long ago broken by many heavily unionized companies going bankrupt. While this was painful for both workers and shareholders, the economy motored on as nimbler non-union competitors picked up the slack. This approach is problematic for the public sector because bankrupt state and local governments cannot be replaced by competitors waiting in the wings. Yes, citizens can always vote with their feet, emptying out cities like Detroit, leaving the blighted wreckage behind. But isn’t Walker’s targeted fiscal retrenchment less painful than scorched-earth abandonment?
Chicago machine candidate Barack Obama rode into office to the tune of Hail to the Chief, promising the unions that backed him the gift of card check elections, ending the secret ballot that shields employees from union intimidation. He may well ride into retirement to the tune of On Wisconsin as the era of closed shop unionism comes to an end.